The Nuggets are 6-4 in their last 10 games and the Thunder have hit a bump in the road, but Houston is playing well and closing in fast. How optimistic are you about Denver holding on to the two-seed?
Brendan Vogt: Houston is getting hot at the right time and they’re the only team with a chance of catching Denver that might also hold the tiebreaker. The Nuggets have a tough remaining schedule and the introduction of Isaiah Thomas has thrown off the chemistry of the second unit. But the starters are healthy and looking good, that performance against Golden State notwithstanding. I think this team is closer to making a run than some of these recent losses would suggest. I like their chances.
Ryan Blackburn: I’m with Brendan here. If the Nuggets go 10-7 down the stretch, they would finish 53-29. That means the Rockets would have to finish 12-4 themselves to match a 53-29 record, and assuming Houston holds the tiebreaker at the end of the year, they would earn the 2 seed. It would go a long way for Denver to win their final game against Houston on March 28th, but it’s also not necessary if Denver takes care of their own business. I think Denver outlasts them personally, holding onto the 2 seed and setting up a playoff showdown with either San Antonio or L.A. in round one of the playoffs.
Adam Mares: Mildly optimistic. They need to go 3-0 on this home-stand and, more importantly, they need to start playing their best basketball. I’m less concerned about seeding and more concerned about them peaking in mid-April.
Gordon Gross: I’ve said before that I expect Denver to be the three seed, and that hasn’t changed. I think Houston passes them. The late-season schedule still looks rough and the lower seeds will be scrambling for the chance to face the three or four seed and avoid Houston and Golden State in the playoffs. Denver has a lot of fight in them but they are still finding their balance and comfort in both the starting and bench lineups, and it’ll cost them too many games to hang on to the two seed in the end.
Recently we’ve seen Nikola Jokic struggle against multiple playoff caliber opponents. How do you feel the team has responded when their best player has been stifled and how concerned are you about this rearing its head in the playoffs?
Vogt: From the media responsibilities that come with being an All-Star, to the responsibility of carrying his team on the court, ‘Big Honey’ looks a little worn down—perhaps longing for an offseason hibernation in Serbia. He’ll need to push through it for Denver to be the best version of themselves, but I actually like the way his teammates have responded. This team has shown a lot of heart, a ton of pride, and they’re learning how to win dogfights. That will be tested in the playoffs. As will Jokic’s resiliency.
Blackburn: The starters around Jokic have been subpar this year. Murray has had his moments, but he’s up and down. Harris has been hurt. Barton isn’t finishing in the paint the way he used to, and Millsap is showing the signs of aging the Nuggets hoped would hold off for a couple of years. Frankly, Denver’s best and most reliable guards this year have been Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, and that has shown through in Denver’s last several matchups against playoff caliber opponents. Jokic, like the rest of his teammates, is prone to struggling at times. He’s in his 4th season in the NBA. He carries a heavy burden, and when the going gets tough, Denver’s depth has to make good on the promise of multiple players stepping up in big moments. If they don’t, then why have the depth in the first place?
Mares: The team has responded exactly as I would expect. But the more important thing is that Jokic has had the worst 5-game stretch of his season. I talked about this on the latest episode of Locked on Nuggets but Jokic might be hitting a wall. Michael Malone has talked about his concern with Jokic’s fatigue and to me, it sure looks like Jokic needs a break. Hopefully this three day break is enough to get the big fella back on track.
Gross: The Nuggets as a whole look tired, Jokic included. When Jokic has a bad game the rest of the squad has not picked him up much recently - again, a hard thing to do when reintegrating all of Denver’s injured players and jostling lineups. It’s the risk with Jokic-ball: that he is not allowed to have bad games at the same time as other players. Welcome to the burden a superstar carries for his team. Jokic will get used to it, and the team will get healthy. I’m not concerned about it in the playoffs against teams not named the Rockets or the Warriors in the West. Jokic is having a terrible 10 days or so but I don’t think it’s indicative of a fatal flaw in this year’s squad.
The bench was the saving grace in an otherwise dismal performance against the Warriors, is there hope for a second unit that includes Isaiah Thomas?
Vogt: Perhaps one day, but Denver’s waiting for Thomas to find his juice and his place in the second-unit’s offense at a time when teams around the league are shortening rotations. The playoffs are approaching fast, and at this point it just seems clear that the Nuggets and IT are on different timelines. Good things happen when the ball is in Monte Morris’ hands.
Blackburn: There’s definitely hope, and it comes in the form of Monte Morris handling the basketball. When Morris is the playmaker, he makes great decisions, and the offense is better for it. When Thomas has been the playmaker, he has struggled to get into the lane and create shots for others. Thomas is averaging a career low assist rate by far in his first nine games back, and that’s pretty indicative of his ability to get others involved right now. If he’s an off-ball shooter, then there’s hope for the second unit. If he’s shoehorned into a role he isn’t meant to hold, then the Nuggets have a major problem on their hands.
Mares: I hope I’m wrong but I just don’t see it. I don’t think Malone will pull the plug anytime soon but I’d be surprised if Denver’s best bench lineups included IT. He doesn’t look close to 100% and even if he was, he helps in ways that the team simply doesn’t need at positions on the court that Denver is already flush with talent.
Gross: The hope is that he plays off-ball while also not being a huge liability against shooting guards 9-12 inches taller than him. It’s a tall task, no pun intended. Thomas currently can’t finish downhill the way that he did and you can see the rust in his 5-on-5 game when it comes to creating for others and utilizing other players on the court. Injury recovery is bringing out the worst parts of his game and masking some of the great ones he showed when healthy in Boston. I don’t think those great ones come back in time for him to be a real, meaningful part of Denver’s playoff rotation. At best, he can come in for someone who can’t find the range in one game and be there as a locker room guy for those Veteran Talks that the Nuggets might need in April.